Sunday, April 29, 2007

The birds and the bees (and the fishes)

Wow, it has been exactly a month since I last posted. I apologize for that. Or, is it presumptuous of me to apologize for not posting, as if you readers have somehow been inconvenienced by my lack of blabbery?

My posting hiatus was due to both being very busy, with Spring Break in Florida and then catching up from that excursion, and not having a topic that compelled me to post. I'm a big believer in only writing when I have something to say, rather than when the calendar pressures me to do so.

Having said that, today we had a terrific impromptu Big Science Saturday (BSS, and yes, I know it's Sunday today). BSS had also been on a bit of a hiatus the last couple of weeks as Ryan and I had been working on his science fair project. His project was really fun; he successfully trained a roly poly to go through a maze. But it warmed my heart this morning when Maddox said that he missed having BSS and wanted to restart them.

We decided to ride our bikes to the nearby gliderport at the Boulder County Airport. It's a great place to watch the gliders take off and land, and you can wander among them and occasionally the boys even get to sit in them.

On the way, we rode by a pond and heard some splashing in some trees. I glanced down and some some activity right by the waters edge. We stopped our bikes to check it out, and it was a bunch of fish, probably carp, spawning (if that's the right word). They were paired off, and making a large commotion in the very shallow water at the pond's edge. We were able to walk up and watch the action from about 6 feet away.

It was a wonderful nature moment that doesn't happen often enough in the city environment. Because Boulder has large public open spaces surrounding the city, we have more than most, including seeing a coyote last week and the ubiquitous prairie dogs, but this was pretty special.

I was worried, though, that we would have to explain the whole birds and bees thing, but the boys seemed satisfied to know that the fish were "making babies." Dodged that bullet for now ...

Thursday, March 29, 2007

We're your government, and we're here to help

Albeo has spent the last few weeks trying to unwind the 'help' that the government is providing us.

Recently, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has begun publishing a series of test results of solid state lighting (SSL) efficacy. Among their stated goals are to:
  • Provide objective product performance information to the public in the early years, helping buyers and specifiers have confidence that new SSL products will perform as claimed
  • Guide the development, refinement, and adoption of credible, standardized test procedures and measurements for SSL products
We recently found out that the DOE had purchased an Albeo fixture for testing, and they provided us with their results of that testing. We were dismayed, although not completely surprised, to learn that their results differed dramatically from our own results; results that we had touted in our marketing materials.

Why are the results so different, especially since Albeo's results were measured by an independent testing lab? (In fact, the lab we used was just selected as one of five candidate laboratories in the country to conduct SSL product tests in support of the DOE SSL Commercial Product Testing Program.) There are two major reasons for the discrepancy:
  • The DOE includes the power supply in the measurement. Albeo does not, because we buy these power supplies from a third party, or our customer supplies them. (California does not include the power supply in its Title 24 efficacy standard.)
  • Efficacy results can vary dramatically with the product options (desired color temperature, use of a lens or a diffuser) and with lot-to-lot variations of LED component efficacy.
It turns out that the DOE ordered a version of our fixture that has the worst possible combination of characteristics. It's not wrong from them to do so, but it provides the opportunity for confusion among our customers.

For that reason, last week we published a news release to try to clear up the confusion. What's more frustrating is that, for our customers, efficacy is not commonly one of the top selection criteria for our part compared to other alternatives.

To be fair to the DOE and Jim Brodrick, Manager of the DOE's Lighting Research and Development program, (according to this article) they're just responding to a request from the solid state lighting industry for assistance. According to Jim,
“We have planned a number of commercialization-assistance activities to make certain that the DOE’s substantial investment in new SSL technology results in widespread use of these technologies and in large benefits to the US economy.”
However, isn't the free market better equipped to provide this kind of information, or to even decide if this information is useful?

If SSL is going to succeed, it will do so on its own merits when it is compared other available alternatives. The market is ruthlessly efficient in sorting these things out. It doesn't really need 'help' from Uncle Sam.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Getting the message right

The other day at Albeo, we were interviewed by a writer for the Boulder County Business Report. While the reporter was nice enough and we chatted a long time, I'm not sure we got our points across. That's our own fault, because we hadn't identified what those points were.

I have posted in the past that I'm a marketing fundamentalist. One of the marketing fundamentals is identifying what your important corporate messages are, and making sure those messages are communicated at every opportunity. Well, we hadn't taken the time to do that and I think it will show in the final printed piece (due out in a week or so).

BCBR is not going to make or break us as a company, and the piece that gets printed will probably be fine. However, we will do better next time because next time might just be a make or break opportunity.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Keep it clear - use an elephant

I saw a commercial yesterday for an insurance company. It was an eyecatching commercial because it had a huge talking gorilla in it. (You can see the commercial here.)

Actually, the gorilla caught my eye, then confused me to the point where I missed the product and the company. I had to use Google to track it down to reference it here.

Here's my problem with the ad. The basic setup is a guy leaves his company retirement party, gets into an elevator, and there's a huge gorilla in there telling him that his retirement nest egg isn't what it should be. Again, I missed the details on the product because I got hung up on the "800 pound gorilla in the room." It seemed like the ad was getting the metaphor mixed up with the elephant in the room.

The 800 pound gorilla is a metaphor for a large, uncontrollable force, like being partners with Microsoft. But that's not what the ad's gorilla was supposed to symbolize. He was supposed to symbolize the uncomfortable, unspoken, but obvious problem. That's the elephant in the room, not the 800 pound gorilla.

Then I looked up elephant in the room on Wikipedia, which states that it is "Also sometimes seen is the variant 800 pound gorilla in the room. This is a contamination from a separate idiom, '800 pound gorilla,' meaning a powerful contender."

So, if you're creating a commercial to get a message across about a product, do you really want your audience struggling with your 'contaminated idiom,' or do you want them listening to your message? Just use an elephant.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe everyone else got it.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More on artificial barriers to the free flow of goods

Generally, I don't intend to use this blog to make political statements. My posting yesterday was a rare exception, but now that I brought up the issue of free trade (or artificial barriers to it) it has come up again and I can't stop myself.

Today, NPR broadcast a story (here's a summary) about how the Bush administration is trying to make the distribution of food for aid more efficient. The administration is trying to change the Food for Peace program to allow food to be purchased closer to where it is needed than requiring that all food in this $1B program to be purchased from US farmers. American farmers, of course, are fighting this hard.

The thing that drives me crazy about this kind of stuff is the awkward consequences of these artificial barriers. According to the story, it takes an average of six months for food to arrive at the needed location after the request has been made. This could be reduced by months if more local sources are allowed. Are we trying to help the starving people, or the American farmers? Why don't we take the money that we save in shipping American produce (and thereby artificially propping up US prices) and use it to retrain the impacted American farmers to pursue alternative employment in a more needed area?

The best part of hearing this story on NPR is that I had a chance to describe it to my 8 year old son and discuss it with him over dinner. I like sharing with him difficult problems with no clear answer as a bit of a mental and philosophical exercise.

His solution was remarkably simple. Buy a limited amount of local produce to only meet short-term needs, then replace the supply with American food when it is able to arrive. In that way, we help both the starving people and the American farmer. Brilliant.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Capitalism or communism?

I just returned from several days in Shenzhen in southern China. This is only my second visit to China, and I find it a confounding country.

The Chinese people seem to be very entrepreneurial, always looking for opportunities for profit and willing to start new businesses at the drop of a hat. The Chinese government appears to encourage this behavior, giving the impression of supporting, even nurturing, capitalism.

But everywhere you look, you see the economic inefficiencies of the communist system of government. For instance, the way I got into Shenzhen was to fly to Hong Kong, then I took a bus across the border into China. Of course, at the Chinese border, I got off the bus, went through passport control, then reboarded my bus on the other side of the border. I thought that was it and we would then drive right into Shenzhen.

However, when we got to the edge of Shenzhen, the bus stopped again and they checked papers again. They seemed more concerned with the Asians on the bus than westerners like myself, and I asked my Chinese host what was going on. He stated that Shenzhen is a special economic zone and that Chinese citizens from other parts of the country were not allowed to enter without the proper papers.

I don't know what criteria they use to define that permission, but any artificial barrier to the flow of labor capital (or currency, or information, or anything else) means inefficiencies and inequities to me. (Can you tell I'm a free trader?)

Other examples of labor inefficiencies were everywhere. The new, modern, beautiful hotel where we stayed had a spa that covered one floor, with a pool, workout room, and spa service rooms. At the pool, there was a "California Juice Bar," where a woman stood ready to serve up smoothies. However, I never saw anyone in the pool the whole time I was there, but she stood there at her bar all day long.

Another example was the woman whose job seemed to be to clean off the tops of the stone benches in the formal garden across the street. That's all she did, all day, every day that I was there. How can that be a good use of the labor resources?

These are the kinds of stories we used to hear about the old USSR, and we know its fate. If China somehow manages to smoothly transition away from centralized planning to true capitalism, they will be a formidable economic power. But they need to remove these types of artificial barriers, and it's hard to see how they can do that and remain consistent with communist rule.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

I'm making a public commitment

I hereby announce that I am going to do Triple Bypass again this year. For those of you who don't know, it's one of the most difficult citizen's bike rides in the nation, with over 10,000 feet of climbing on a 120 mile course through the Rockies.

I have done the Triple Bypass once, in 2001. It was amazingly difficult, and I spent a couple of months in physical rehabilitation recovering, but it was one of the greatest events I have ever done.

I am finally getting around to committing the time to do it again. The reason that I'm telling all of you about it is that the more people I tell that I'm going to do it, the more likely it is that I actually will. Training for Triple is a huge time commitment, and it's very easy to let it slide when other things come up. This announcement is just my small way of ratcheting up the pressure on myself so that I follow through.

Maybe soon I'll publicly commit to writing that Next Great American Novel that's been floating around in my head.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Act like you've been there before

The Albeo team spent a day this week with a very large furniture manufacturer that is considering replacing the fluorescent fixtures in their furniture with LED fixtures. They have been actively researching LED fixture companies and have visited several to help identify one with which to engage.

Early in their investigation they discovered that LED innovation is not coming from large, established lighting manufacturers but from small startups like Albeo. (I'll describe the reasons for this in a later post.) Since they are a manufacturing powerhouse, they have a healthy concern about partnering with a small company that is new to manufacturing, and they brought along a supply chain management representative specifically to characterize that risk.

The day was pretty successful for Albeo, and a big part of that success is because we nailed that issue. Not because we have terrific manufacturing processes in place; we are truly a small company and we are still developing these methods. However, our manufacturing guys were very effective in showing this potential customer that we know what terrific manufacturing processes are and we are on the road to implement them. In other words, we showed them that we are a big company in the making; we have been there before and we know how to get there.

We clearly impressed them, and it really made me wonder what they saw when they visited our competitors. To me, this doesn't seem like rocket science. To become a big company, you do the (good) things that big companies do, even when you're small.

David Cohen recently posted on his Colorado Startups blog about startup ideas, in which he made the point that it is rare for a successful startup to have a completely unique idea. Rather, startups typically have several competitors with similar ideas, and the successful ones just execute better. In his words, "embrace competition, then go kick some ass. Do it better, smarter, or make it easier."

To me, a big part of that is acting like you've been there before.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

I'm a marketing fundamentalist

Someone asked me yesterday how I can be comfortable marketing such a wide range of products. Over my career, I have marketed semiconductors to the data networking, telecom, and storage markets; telecom equipment to the carriers; branding consulting services to various companies; project software to small and medium businesses; and now LED light fixtures for residential and commercial applications.

I thought about it for a bit and concluded that it's because I'm a marketing fundamentalist. What does that mean? It means that the fundamentals of marketing apply no matter what the product, service, or market. The fundamentals are the things we learned in business school, like the three Cs and the four Ps, and Porter's five forces. If you can really understand those fundamentals and can intelligently apply them, then you can really market anything, and that's what I try to do with any product or in any market. I know that if I get the fundamentals right, I'll do well.

What I am not is a market visionary. These are the people that can see the future, that can anticipate customers' needs before the customers do, that can extrapolate from where things were, through where they are now, to where they will or won't be. I love working with people like that, because I complement them well. They envision, I execute.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Another terrific Martini Group

We got together for another Entrepreneurs Martini Group a couple of nights ago at Laudisio, and it was terrific because it reminded me what I love about these people. I haven't spoken to many of them since our last gathering sometime in the fall, but they started three completely new companies started in that time!

I don't know how much I can say about any of these companies, so I'll refrain from saying anything. (You'll have to come to the next one to learn about them.) But I am continually amazed by the group's creative energy and willingness to take on absurd levels of risk to create something really cool. I love the entrepreneurial culture of Boulder.

(And wow, the new Laudisio is so dramatically different from the old one in North Boulder. I love the new one. The bar area was comfortable and perfect for our group. Gina and I had dinner there after the group disbanded, and the food was as terrific as it has always been. But the atmosphere is completely different. The old Laudisio was charming and intimate, where the new one is big, bustling, modern, and urban. Not bad, just way different.)

Friday, February 16, 2007

The problems with MLM

A while back, I posted about Dragonfly Innovation. In that post, I mentioned that their sales channel strategy was multilevel marketing (MLM). If you're unfamiliar with that term, it refers to the old Tupperware sales model, home parties put on by commissioned sales reps, with a multilevel commission structure where reps get paid not only on their own sales, but on the sales of reps that they recruited. I promised in that post to share some thoughts on MLM, and running into the Dragonfly founders Scott and Susan Dalgleish at the Entrepreneurs Martini Group last night reminded me that I hadn't done so, so here goes.

MLM is a very popular sales model for many companies. It is overwhelmingly targeted at the stay-at-home mom, because it provides her a part-time income that she can scale as she desires and that she can work on according to her own schedule. That kind of flexibility just isn't available anyplace else.

Because MLM is targeted at these moms and, for the most part, they're going to be selling to other moms, the products and services tend to be oriented toward moms: indulgences like beauty products, jewelry, clothing, or lingerie; children's products like Dragonfly or Discovery Toys; or kitchen products like Pampered Chef. (I have also recently seen MLM plans for investment services, although I'm not sure I understand that model.)

My impression, backed by no data whatsoever, is that there has been an explosion of MLM offerings in the past decade. It could just appear that way to me because I have come to a point in my life, married with two young kids, that I'm in the middle of the target zone for these kinds of offerings. Or there could actually be far more offerings because of various social or economic trends, and I believe this is the case.

The desire for higher standards of living (bigger cars and houses, better vacations, etc.) has led to a dramatic rise in two-income households, which has put immense pressure on family life. MLMs offer at least a partial income alternative that allows moms to stay at home, easing those family pressures, but still helping the family checkbook. And the promise of MLMs is that, when the mom wants to increase her income, she just needs to increase her effort, signing more reps and having more parties. This is why I think there has been a big rise in MLM offerings.

But, as in so many things in life, it's not quite that easy. If the mom has preschool-age kids, then she doesn't have a lot of time during the day to work on sales or recruitment, but in the evening she's exhausted from taking care of the kids all day. If her kids are in school all day and she has some more time, she has the opportunity to put in the hours to grow her business. However, her parties, the events that actually make her money, are almost always in the evenings, which takes her away from her family, when spending more time with her family is why she's not working full-time anyway.

And then, after she has worked through her entire personal network of friends, she needs to start essentially cold-calling acquaintances or friends-of-friends. That's hard. That's real sales, not just selling to friends, and most people just aren't cut out for that.

There are obviously exceptions to these issues I raise, but I'm just pointing out that it's not necessarily a perfect option for the rep mom.

It's also not a perfect option for the startup company trying to establish sales channels. If there has indeed been an explosion of MLM offerings, then how do you make yourself stand out from the others? Marketing dollars. And if you want to grow fast, then you'll need to hire paid, direct sales reps in each region in which you want to get established. Sales dollars. Lots of dough to spend in a crowded marketplace. That's a tough road.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A terrific physics science kit for BSS

I have probably cursed my kids to always receive science-related birthday presents because everyone knows we do Big Science Saturday. For Ryan's last birthday, he received a physics kit and we finally got around to giving it a go yesterday.

This is one of the best science kits of any kind that I have ever used. It's the Physics Workshop from Thames & Kosmos. What makes it the best?
  • The build quality of the equipment is very high.
  • There are 37 unique experiments included that all appear to build logically on one another. Although we only did the first so far, a quick skim of the workbook indicates that they each experiment appears to be entertaining and informative.
  • Everything is included, except the occasional household item. (Yesterday's experiment required thread, a couple of potatoes, and a wooden matchstick.)
  • The experiments are sufficiently entertaining that Maddox, who's four, is able to participate, even though the kit is designed for kids eight and up.
  • Best of all, the workbook is terrific. At 64 full pages, it clearly explains how to perform each experiment and provides a narrative that the kids can understand.
One potential shortcoming was highlighted to me by Scott Dalgleish of Dragonfly Innovation in a brief conversation last night. (I'll write about some of his other comments in a coming post.) He asked if the experiments encourage the kids to explore follow-on steps based on what they learned.

For instance, yesterday we learned about gravity and how gravitational force, mass, and acceleration might be related. The creative next step that Dragonfly would provide is to encourage the kids to find other examples of how force, mass, and acceleration might be related. For instance, remember when we launched rockets and lost our rocket? Lots of force, not much mass ... lost rocket.

Given that relatively minor shortcoming (which I should be able to creatively address myself), I love this kit. I hope their other kits are of the same quality, because I'm looking forward to buying one of their chemistry kits next.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Is it martini time already?

The Entrepreneur's Martini Group is getting together again, following a brief hiatus. We're gathering in the bar area at Laudisio's at 29th Street (303-442-1300) on February 15 at 5:30. If you're a startup junkie in the Boulder area, please stop by, introduce yourself, and toss one back with us.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

SharedPlan is number one

People sometimes forget that project management software does not have to come from Microsoft. In the world of alternative PM software suppliers, SharedPlan was recently ranked number one by

That's the good news. The bad news is that many of the features and benefits that make SharedPlan truly unique, like a private project server for improved collaboration, or an issue tracker for monitoring items related to a project, were never mentioned.

We still have some marketing work to do.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

BSS project - making paper

For Big Science Saturday today, the family made paper. It was much easier than I expected, and our papers turned out terrific. See for yourself.

The boys now know how paper is made, sort of. They know how it's made from recycled paper. I tried to explain how it's made from trees, but they didn't seem to have that look of recognition in their eyes. And it was pretty hopeless explaining how continuous paper production might work.

Oh, well. All I hope to do is expose them to concepts. I'm not a teacher. I just like this stuff.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

A recent article in the NY Times (registration may be required) started off with this single line:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Brilliant stuff. Why? Because, even though the article went on for twelve (twelve!) pages, it summarizes what the author is trying to state about what people should eat for maximum health. If you don't get it from that line, the author explains everything you need to know in the first paragraph:

  • Eat food. Real food, whole food. Not prepared foods. Not processed foods. Not fortified foods.
  • Not too much. Pretty self-explanatory.
  • Mostly plants. Meat should be approached more as a side dish than a centerpiece.
I will probably remember that line for the rest of my life, and even attempt to put it in practice. (We generally don't do too badly in our house, but there's certainly room for improvement.)

Why is this line so important to me? Because, as a marketer, it is the holy grail of messaging, the simple, instantly memorable phrase that says everything that's important, and nothing else. It is a remarkably difficult thing to achieve.

It is now inserted into my personal lexicon of aphorisms, right next to "Bears get rich. Bulls get rich. Pigs go broke."

Thursday, February 01, 2007

How do they treat cabin fever in Minnesota?

The consensus in Boulder seems to be that we've all had enough of this winter weather. Enough already. Seriously. It's not funny anymore.

My wife and I met in graduate business school in New England, and moved to Boston when we graduated in 1993 (still dating at the time). We lived downtown in a couple of very fun neighborhoods, surrounded by many of our fellow alumni and having a terrific time.

Then came the winter of over 100 inches of snow. Cold every day, with the snow never melting, and the sun never shining. Mounds of plowed snow, brown, smelly, probably hiding dead animals, and eating up precious parking spaces. It sucked.

Gina and I decided it was time to move. I grew up in Colorado, and knew that Colorado was a much more tolerable winter state than Massachusetts (or Chicago, where her family lives). What makes Colorado winters so livable is the regular sunshine (Colorado gets over 300 days of it a year) and warm days throughout the winter. Sure, we'll get a big snow, but two days later it's gone and we're riding our bikes. Colorado was the place for us, and we moved to Boulder in 1995, and we love it here.

But not this winter. This is that same Boston winter that we left. It has been cold and snowy since December 20, with only a couple days of sunshine and no sight of even 50 degrees. I have shoveled our driveway and walk at least 10 times so far this winter (we're not even halfway through it!), and I probably only do that 6 times any other year. My four-year-old son told me at dinner this evening that he needs a Bahamavention. It's really bad.

So, my question is, how do they do it in Minnesota? This must be what their winter is like every year. What do they do to avoid insanity? You can't tell me that hockey is the answer. Or the Mall of America. Or ice fishing. What else is there?

I don't get it, but I need some answers fast or I'll need a Bahamavention too.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

A new SharedPlan milestone

Early in 2006, SharedPlan established a public repository for project plans. Users can download SharedPlan's free version, OpenPlanning, create plans, and save them in the public repository. Alternatively, they can open someone else's plan and use it as a basis for their own plan.

Why would they do that? Because people love to share information, and love to learn from others.

How do we know? Because we now have over 1000 plans in the repository. 1000!

Now, many of them are simple test plans saved by users trying to learn about the tools. But there are plans for building and landscaping houses, putting on a wedding, doing chemistry experiments, and many other things. There are also a few wacky ones, like this new one listing a Brit's lifetime goals.

We don't know how all of this is going to turn out, or what the repository is going to grow into, but it fun watching it.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The promise and challenge of marketing at Albeo

You have probably seen LED lighting. I'm certain you have seen LEDs.

Red, green, and blue LEDs are the power-on indicators for your consumer electronics, and high-power LEDs are used in traffic lights, auto brake lights, and bicycle headlights. Over the last decade, LED manufacturers have figured out how to make them white, and they continue to make them ever brighter. This has enabled them to begin being used in general lighting applications.

Compared to traditional incandescent, fluorescent, or halogen lighting, LEDs are still the most expensive light source (per lumen), but they have some unique, valuable characteristics:
  • They are as efficient as fluorescents
  • They have no glass to break
  • They don't break when vibrated
  • They only use safe, low voltage
  • They last many years before they die
  • They are cool to the touch
  • They have no hazardous materials (fluorescents have mercury)
  • They are quite small
So, here's the marketing challenge that Albeo faces: finding the niche applications that value some of the above features enough to pay the price for LEDs. Or, more accurately, choosing which of the several dozen niches that Albeo should pursue.

The phone rings all day long at Albeo with new customers interested in Albeo's lighting products. This is good news and bad. It's certainly good that there is clear demand, but it is very taxing on a small company's limited resources to try to sell to a very broad range of customers.

Many of these niche applications, while they can be quite large, are very independent of other applications. For instance, one market that would likely value LED lighting is the RV market. RVs tend to shake most forms of lighting to early failure, and they need efficient lighting to run on batteries. This sounds like a perfect solution for LEDs, particularly in high-end platforms.

The problem is that the channels used to sell to the RV market, and the communication vehicles used to reach it, are completely independent of those used for any other vertical application. That means that the company would not be able to leverage any marketing and sales investment in the RV vertical into any other vertical. For a small company, these investments are precious, so choosing the markets to pursue for early and maximum ROI becomes a critical decision.

Not that I'm complaining, because these are great problems to have. LEDs are going to displace many other forms of lighting over the next couple of decades. We just need to make sure we position Albeo to be the leader of that transition.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Another startup I'm working with

I have posted several times here about SharedPlan Software, whom I have been working with for a couple of years. SharedPlan continues to develop and release products that deliver on their vision, and their revenue continues to grow.

However, like many entrepreneurs, I tend to be involved with more than one startup firm at a time because they develop at different rates and have different needs over time. For this reason, I also started working with another startup, Albeo Technologies, Inc., a few months ago. Albeo is developing and marketing a range of white LED light fixtures for use in the residential and commercial marketplace.

Working with two different startups simultaneously certainly can be taxing, but I find it keeps my marketing tools sharp. Marketing software over the Internet and light fixtures through various traditional channels would seem to be very different exercises, but at the end of the day it's still all about marketing fundamentals: identifying needs, defining products to meet those needs, and telling potential customers about those products.

In a subsequent post, I'll describe some of the challenges Albeo faces right now. I'm excited about the opportunities for LED lighting and looking forward to helping define the strategy to pursue some of those opportunities.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

SharedPlan had an enormous 2006

I have been playing with SharedPlan's new Issue Tracker, a new web-based issue tracking and reporting capability within TeamServices. It's a terrifically flexible, useful tool, even if the issues are not associated with any particular project.

As I was using Issue Tracker, it occurred to me what a huge 2006 SharedPlan had. While the company did not meet all of its business goals, it certainly exceeded all product development targets. Roger compiled a list of the accomplishments on his blog. When one considers that list in light of the very small number of available resources, it's truly remarkable.

Roger also requested suggestions for what users would like to see in 2007. I think those suggestions will be bounced against some of the recurring items that pop up in the support forum to help define the future direction. I'll be interested to see what makes the list.

Hats off to the SharedPlan team for a great 2006, and I'm looking forward to an equally creative 2007.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Someone please start this business

I have an idea for a business. I have so many other things on my plate that I don't have time to pursue it myself, so I offered the idea to a few of my friends and relatives to see if they were interested. Since no one has yet taken me up on it, I'm now providing the idea to you readers.

I have often heard that the best startup business ideas come from someone looking to buy a product or service and realizing that it's not available. This is an example of that. That's not to say that I think it's the best startup idea ever, because I don't think it's a BIG business. However, I want someone to start this business because I want to be a customer and there must be others like me.

So, what's the idea? A home-delivery science kit subscription service.

OK, I hear your collective "Huh?," so here's the deal.

In a prior post, I described Big Science Saturday (BSS), my on-and-off weekly science experiment fun time with my two sons. In another post, I described how we're now having fun with rockets.

I'm not trying to replace their traditional school science education, and it's difficult for me to say whether or not that science education is good or bad. I do this science stuff for other reasons.

I'm trying to expose my kids to science in as many fun ways as I can. Even if they're not going to have a technology-based career or work with science in any direct way, I want them to be comfortable with it. Obviously, technology is found in absolutely everything we do today so no matter what they choose to do, technology will have an impact.

In addition, engaging with my kids in doing science experiments allows me to interact with them in an intellectual way that is just not available through the other activities we do, like riding bikes, or going to ball games. Even going to zoos and museums or my helping them with their homework does not provide the intellectual engagement combined with fun in the way that performing experiments together does. Science and technology form such a large part of every aspect of my life that I can't imagine living without it, and I want to be able to relate with them on that level.

For these reasons, I have probably performed 30-40 BSSs over the last 2-3 years. Now, while my motivations for doing BSS may be somewhat unique among other parents, I believe the concept of BSS would be widely popular. As evidence of this, when I was doing BSS regularly for several months, other parents in the neighborhood started asking if their children could attend. Eventually, I had 5 or 6 kids on any given Saturday, which indicates that the interest might broader than just oddballs like me.

The popularity of BSS with my kids and others led to the problem that begs for a business solution. In essence, the time and effort required to come up with new and interesting experiments got to be too great. Yes, you can buy all kinds of science kits, but to create a regular activity based on one-off science kits, while ensuring a quality learning and fun family experience, continuity of concepts, no redundancy, etc., is a huge commitment that a working parent just can't provide.

So, there's my long-winded reasoning for why a subscription science kit service makes sense. Here are the some aspects of the service:
  • Customers would purchase a subscription to receive an experiment kit, probably once every other week.
  • The kits would include all required materials (except for maybe common household materials, like baking soda), complete directions, an explanation of the science for the parent, and an explanation of the science for the child, including suggested follow-on questions or projects.
  • The kits would follow a logical progression, i.e. a curriculum, that is geared to the age of the child. For instance, when a customer subscribes, they provide their child's age, and they'll start receiving kits appropriate for that age. Over time, the kits would work through topics in physics, chemistry, plant biology, animal biology, etc.
The company (let's call it Big Science Saturday, Inc., or BSS for short) would not necessarily have to create the experiments itself. There are lots of quality science materials available, and BSS could work with these existing suppliers to make minor alterations to their kits to fit within the BSS program.

Alternatively, BSS could partner with someone like Discovery Science stores to provide another revenue stream. BSS may even be able to get some startup capital from educational grant money.

I recently blogged about Dragonfly Innovation, which is developing creativity kits and marketing them through multilevel marketing techniques. There may be a potential partnership there, as well.

So, there's my idea. Someone please do it, so I can be your first customer. You can even have the name Big Science Saturday. Just do it, please.